Some Useful Information If You Plan to Set Your Novel in the Nineteen-Fifties


When I was thirteen years old, I read Pride and Prejudice, which taught me a lot about writing in general, and especially about the value of small, period details in historical fiction. Not that Jane Austen wrote P&P as historical fiction, of course. As far as she was concerned, it was just regular fiction; and I personally like the way that means that she didn’t feel any need to describe every detail of what everybody wore. Some people love costume-descriptions, and there’s a lot of historical fiction that’s almost more historical than fiction that caters to those very people. Myself, I treasure the tiny, just-right particular, such as—in the case of Pride and Prejudice—the line “…the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy…”

Apparently I’m not the only person whose attention was caught by this sentence. A quick Google-search (not possible when I was thirteen) reveals that not only is it widely known and quoted, but that there are websites whose specific purpose is to teach Jane Austen fans how to make shoe-roses. To get that information in my day, I had to spend a lot of time in used bookstores, poring through old books of housekeeping advice. I ended up buying a lot of these books, despite the fact that most were mildewed and I am allergic to mildew. (You can kill mildew in a microwave oven—try not to set the book on fire—but home microwaves are another thing that did not exist back in the Pleistocene, when I was thirteen.) I treasure the book in which I finally found an explicit definition of “shoe-roses” (it includes the advice that “if the shoes be very worn, make the roses large, to cover them”); but I have to admit that the jewel of my housekeeping-book collection is the one containing directions for doing something Jane Austen probably never even considered: gilding a live fish. Yes, gilding; and yes, live. The idea was that if you were giving a party, and if you had a fish-pond or bowl (and, presumably, if the fish in the bowl wasn’t already a goldfish), you could dazzle your guests by gussying the little fellow up with a few sheets of gold-leaf. Best line in the whole book: “The fish does not mind this.” I have never found a literary use for this nugget of information, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, what this is all leading up to is that for some reason that I cannot begin to imagine, the 1950s are hot. This means that people who weren’t actually there are suddenly writing books about the fifties, throwing in—willy-nilly in some cases—factoids of the Fifties Experience that, while true, are sometimes a little too obviously culled from history texts and fashion magazines.

Consider this: Does your house/wardrobe/menu resemble those in today’s fashion magazines? I thought not. So in case you’re thinking of writing something about the fifties, here are some particulars you can put in it, guaranteed genuine, to supply what we will call “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”*

First and foremost, not everything in the fifties was from the fifties! The people who make movies are the worst for forgetting this. People mostly still drove forties cars; and due to the shortage of new cars during WWII, some of them drove thirties cars. A big shiny thing with lots of chrome and fins was rare enough to turn heads in a middle-class neighborhood. People’s houses were filled with forties stuff, too. If you think the ubiquitous aqua/burnt orange/grayish pink fifties color schemes looked good with an off-white naugahyde sofa—you’re right. The combination was pretty cool, actually. But imagine it instead with an overstuffed davenport—in a color somewhere between brown and purple—left over from 1946. For most people, that was the reality of 50s decorating.

What became the “walk-in closet” was often referred to as a “Hollywood closet” in the fifties, because unless you lived in Hollywood, the closet in your bedroom was small. Which was fine. You didn’t have many clothes to put in it anyway. Also, all shoes were uncomfortable until the day before they were totally worn out. My family was poor and I wore cheap shoes, but I have to assume from the speed with which rich people adopted lovely, soft, comfortable running shoes when they were finally invented that expensive shoes were stiff and caused blisters, too. Good line for a fifties party scene: “Jeepers, my feet are killing me!”

Big Brother, aka your neighbors, was watching. Big Brother gossiped, too.

Racism and sexism were pervasive. Throw in a joke about what bad drivers women are and if no one in your book challenges it—even though insurance companies knew women were better drivers than men, and charged them less for insurance—and you will have created a genuine fifties moment. Racist “humor” will also set an authentic tone, but by today’s standards, even the mildest will rightly be considered highly offensive. Risk it only in works of a particularly “gritty” nature.

In the fifties, if your mom was a terrible cook, you were screwed. Fast food was a very new concept, and resorted to only occasionally. Restaurants were expensive, and not child-friendly. If your mom was the kind to boil pork-chops and believed canned peas—also boiled—were good enough for anybody, you had no alternative but to eat boiled pork-chops and canned peas. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Also in the fifties, lots of foods that didn’t belong there were made “interesting” by being suspended in lime jello. These foods included Vienna Sausages. Really.

Men had jobs. Women had children. And hobbies. Your average lower-middle-class house was filled with ugly ceramics, hideous needlepoint, or crocheted everything. On the other hand, toilet-paper rolls “disguised” by a crocheted lady in a flared skirt were better than a mom with that other fifties hobby, which was heavy drinking.

I lived through the fifties. I lived through the sixties. At no time in either decade did I ever hear one single adult admit to liking rock and roll music. Ever.

There you have it. Make what use of you will of these gems. Or, on the other hand, don’t. Write about the sixties, instead. Trust me: The sixties were better.

*W.S. Gilbert; The Mikado. I am a HUGE fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The only thing I have in common with Jane Austen

Jane_Austen_smaller_flippedAdmit that you write stories, and people will almost invariably immediately tell you what story they would write “if they only had time.”  –Or, alternatively, what story they will write just as soon as they get any time.  Apparently in every case, lack of time—not skill, talent, experience at writing, etc., etc.—is the only thing keeping them from producing a literary blockbuster.  If you can stifle your urge to inform them that writing is actually pretty hard work, they will talk all evening about their projected story, leaving you, nodding wisely from time to time, free to think about yours.

—Although you may occasionally have to deal with the “Jane Austen Problem.”

As every Jane Austen fan knows, while poor Jane was struggling to finish Emma (and I don’t care how much you love Pride and Prejudice; if you think it’s better than Emma, you’re just wrong, okay?) she received a letter from a certain Reverend James Stanier Clarke, who worked for the Prince Regent, informing her that his royal boss kept a set of all her novels in each of his residences.  He then hinted broadly—and we may assume, I think, that this was the actual point of the letter—that the prince would like it very much if she dedicated her next book to him.  Which Jane wisely did.  I don’t actually know how many residences the Prince Regent had at the time, but an Emma in each of them couldn’t have hurt the Austen bottom-line.

Jane Austen’s problem was that Rev. Clarke went on to propose that Miss Austen consider writing the story of “an English clergyman; a man”—wait for it—“like himself.”  Just like himself, apparently; because he suggested several specific episodes he wanted portrayed (“picture him burying his mother—as I did”).

On the one hand, this kind of thing is annoying.  On the other, I have no doubt Jane could have turned Rev. Clarke’s life into one hell of a good read.  The satirical “Plan of a Novel” she wrote soon after describes a heroine’s father as a clergyman who is “nobody’s Enemy but his own” –a direct quote from the importunate clergyman’s depiction of himself—and the heroine and her father as fleeing to Kamchatka (great setting, Jane!) where “the poor Father… finding his end approaching, throws himself on the Ground & after 4 or 5 hours of tender advice & parental Admonition to his miserable Child, expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm, intermingled with Invectives against Holder’s of Tythes.”

This is a book I would like to read!

It’s aggravating when someone starts telling you to write about them, but if you listen carefully, you may find much good material there.

In other words, it’s aggravating when someone starts telling you to write about them, but if you listen carefully, you may find much good material there.  A weepy clergyman’s fit of death-bed religious mania, may, if transferred to an exotic location, become very interesting; and if, as Jane Austen does, you have the parson peg out early in the story, leaving an improbably pure heroine far from home and abruptly thrown friendless on the world, it’s pure gold.  She’s beautiful!  She’s innocent!  She’s meat in a shark-tank of unscrupulous men!  Is she the plucky kind, who wises up quickly and saves herself?  (I have it on the best authority—a very pointed letter of rejection—that the “plucky” type is currently a favorite with publishers.)  Or is she–possibly after a series of adventures bordering on the pornographic, if that’s your taste—rescued by a strong yet sensitive man?  –Or, since these are modern times, a strong yet sensitive woman?   Is it contemporary?  Historical?  Which kind of clothes do you like to describe being flung wildly or fluttering romantically to the floor?  –And don’t overlook so-called “genre” possibilities, either.  Consider creating a heroine who finds her salvation in quilting, scrapbooking, or wood-craft.  The “Wood-craft fiction” publishing market, particularly, is not (yet) overcrowded.  Meanwhile, as you mentally mine and develop possible plot elements from what your fellow party-guest tells you is the book he will someday write, occasionally nod wisely as though you are paying attention.

Then at the end of the evening, do as Jane Austen did.  As you leave, regretfully admit that you “could never depict” [such a] “learned clergyman” (bookkeeper/beekeeper/sonavabitch CEO/boring biochemist/whatever) since you are “the most unlearned, uninformed female who ever dared write.”

—Substitute “male” for “female” if appropriate.


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